Views on Criminality in the United States

In The New Jim Crow Michelle Alexander explains the ways that we have turned the prison system and our treatment of criminals into a modern caste system. She looks at the way we approach criminality and is critical of the open prejudice shown toward those who have been arrested or convicted of crimes. Her book was eye opening to me because of the way she looked at crime, who commits crime, who is punished for crime, and who seems to be able to commit crime without worrying about punishment. She is able to demonstrate with study after study that our system unreasonably targets minority populations and has different outcomes that limit individual’s futures and shapes the lives and communities in which people live.

 

I was particularly struck by the similarity that exists between those who commit crimes and are punished and pushed out from society and those who never commit crimes and manage to move through life with success. Alexander challenges this idea writing, “The notion that a vast gulf exists between ‘criminals’ and those of us who have never served time in prison is a fiction created by the racial ideology that birthed mass incarceration, namely that there is something fundamentally wrong and morally inferior about ‘them’.” White, brown, and black criminals are somehow viewed as the other and as a problem that we, the morally sound part of society, must deal with. We cast these individuals out because they are somehow flawed and unable to participate in society at a fundamentally humane level. But this idea is not backed by real evidence of behavior, especially as we have been increasing our sentencing for low level drug crimes and over policing minority neighborhoods.

 

Alexander continues, “Most Americans violate drug laws in their life-time. Indeed most of us break the law not once but repeatedly throughout our lives. Yet only some of us will be arrested, charged, convicted of a crime, branded a criminal or felon, and ushered into a permanent under-caste.” We don’t seem to recognize how frequently the law is broken, particularly with drug laws, and how arbitrary our punishment and legal system can be. When we limit housing and limit employment opportunities to those who have been arrested, we limit the ability of people who were arrested to return to society and become a contributing member of society. We make up stories about those who were arrested so that we don’t have to confront the brutal fact that we arrest minority populations at far greater rates than we should, and our stories help us feel justified in our actions and morally superior to other people. Ensuring that everyone in society can advance and ensuring that we can have robust and supportive communities means that we must re-think our criminal justice system and re-think what it means to be a criminal.
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Moral Uplift

A question I am always asking myself is how much personal responsibility we should assign to individuals when it comes to success in terms of finances, relationships, careers, and life in general. The society that we live within is complicated swirling atmosphere that lifts some to the highest levels and buffers across the ground. Recently I have been writing about the challenges that minorities face in the United States, and the relative advantages experienced by our country’s white majority. At the same time, I have been listening to Tyler Cowen and thinking about his most recent book which I have not read, The Complacent Class. Several of the authors that I have read who focus on race in the United States, Ta-Nehisi Coats, Michelle Alexander, and Michael Tesler, have emphasized the ways in which factors beyond an individual’s control, such as race, shape the opportunities and futures that we have. Other authors that I have read or listened to extensively in podcasts, Cowen, Ryan Holiday, and Richard Wiseman, seem to suggest that mindset matters a great deal, and that we can adopt better thought patterns to achieve great success. These two views are not mutually exclusive, but are tied together in a complex set of interactions by personal responsibility.

 

About personal responsibility and society in The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander writes, “Urging the urban poor—or anyone—to live up to their highest ideals and values is a good thing, as it demonstrates confidence in the ability of all people to stretch, grow, and evolve. Even in the most dire circumstances, we all have power and agency, the ability to choose what we think and how we respond to the circumstances of our lives.” Alexander’s quote puts the idea of mindset to action in this quote, highlighting the importance of believing that anyone at anytime can find success. She emphasizes the importance of self-efficacy, believing that one has the ability to reach beyond their current situation and to make the most of who they are and where they find themselves. Alexander continues, “The intuition underlying moral-uplift strategies is fundamentally sound: out communities will never thrive if we fail to respect ourselves and one another.”

 

I believe that Alexander is correct that we have to respect ourselves and believe that we can make changes and advance in our own lives if we are to be successful and if we are to contribute to society. At the same time, I think it is important that we recognize that our personal responsibility also extends to how we interact with society and with those who are also facing obstacles of their own. The challenges that middle and upper class white people face are real, but so is the ability for them to recover, receive coaching and mentoring, and to get a second chance. For our low income populations and our minority populations, the personal responsibility piece holds true, but the ability to recover and find a second chance is not related to personal responsibility and is not always available.

 

Alexander looks deeper at personal responsibility and our reactions to ideas of personal responsibility writing, “As a liberation strategy, however, the politics of responsibility is doomed to fail—not because there is something especially wrong with those locked in ghettos or prisons today, but because there is nothing special about them. They are merely human.”

 

Malcom Gladwell in episode 4, Carlos Doesn’t Remember, from his podcast Revisionist History, explains the ways in which even our top performing youth from low income families can be derailed from a path of success. The consequence, he explains, of failing to overcome a single obstacle for a child born to the lowest SES families are overwhelmingly large, and the second chances or ability to recover from a stumble that is afforded to middle and upper class children is non-existent.

 

Somewhere tied between all of these factors lies personal responsibility. We are responsible for how we choose to react to the world around us. Our mind is the only thing we control and can be a tool for overcoming obstacles and not just a camera that reacts to what it sees around itself. At the same time, we cannot control the windfalls of success or adversity that we will face. And all the while we must remember that it is our personal responsibility to be there for others and guide and mentor those who are also facing challenging times. Where we draw the line of personal responsibility matters. It determines how we analyze the future potential of ourselves and others, and it determines how much assistance we receive and give to those around us. The problem is that it is invisible, connected to social responsibility, and entangled with all the things that drag our nation down that we want to forget.

Inflated Districts

Michelle Alexander looks at specific policies that have lead to greater incarceration rates in our nation and have exacerbated racial injustice in her book The New Jim Crow. One of the policies Alexander criticizes is the policy surrounding political representation of incarcerated individuals. After Alexander addresses the reality that our nation locks up minority black and brown men at rates far higher than white men, she addresses questions of voting and districting. Below, Alexander explains how incarcerated individuals are counted by the Census Bureau,

“Under the usual-residence rule, the Census Bureau counts imprisoned individuals as residents of the jurisdiction in which they are incarcerated. Because most new prison construction occurs in predominately white, rural areas, white communities benefit from inflated population totals at the expense of the urban, overwhelmingly minority communities from which the prisoners come. This has enormous consequences for the redistricting process. White rural communities that house prisons wind up with more people in state legislatures representing them, while poor communities of color lose representatives because it appears their population has declined. This policy is disturbingly reminiscent of the three-fifths clause in the original Constitution, which enhanced the political clout of slaveholding states by including 60% of slaves in the population base for calculating Congressional seats and electoral votes, even though they could not vote.”

The presidential election of 2016 showed a powerful split in political preferences between rural and urban parts of the country. Metropolitan areas heavily favored the Democratic candidate, Hilary Clinton, and rural areas overwhelmingly favored Donald Trump from the Republican party. Diving deeper into state politics and representation, we see the same phenomenon play out with state representatives. In my home state of Nevada, the two major population centers, the Las Vegas metropolitan statistical area (MSA) and the Reno MSA, vote democratic while the rural parts of the state vote republican. What the policy that Alexander discusses means is that the MSAs in my state end up loosing seats relative to the rural districts and counties because of the way we count individuals. While Nevada may be dominated by the two million Las Vegas MSA inhabitants and the half million Reno MSA inhabitants, the state likely does see a shift in political representation away from the urban centers toward the rural counties that house the state’s prisons.

It is unlikely that the rural representatives of those prisons favor policies that help improve the neighborhoods and living conditions in the urban communities our prisoners come from. Disturbingly, it is unlikely that our rural representatives favor a reduction in incarceration rates at all since their constituents likely rely on the prison for employment.

It is hard to determine residence and people in prison may be homeless, but nevertheless, we do have the ability today to better analyze and record where our individuals lived prior to being arrested and where they plan to return once released. How we choose count individuals who have short sentences versus life sentences is further in the weeds of the issue, but can be impactful when considering prison populations and the communities that house such prisons. Our nation’s constitution checks urban power by over-representing rural communities in congress, and many state constitutions follow the same suit. Emphasizing this distinction however, and providing greater clout to rural districts that house prisons may encourage a backlash against anti-incarceration movements and may make it less likely that the poor and over policied communities from which our prison population derives, is represented and able to advocate for changes that will improve their lives.

Design Matters

One of my favorite podcasts is Debbie Millman’s Design Matters. She interviews architects, artists, marketers, designers, and other creative people about their work and their place in the world. It is an excellent show to learn about people who see the world differently and to see what people did to reach success, often without following a traditional path. A common theme running throughout Millman’s show is that design matters. It matters a lot when we look at the built world around us and ask questions about why things operate the way they do, about why people behave the way they do, and about why society is designed the way it is. Design matters because the built environment and the societal structures we adopt or inherit shape who we are as people. Everything hinges on the design we give the world around us: our futures, our possibilities, our idea of what is possible, and our understanding of what is reality.

it is incredibly important that we think about design as a society because poor design leads to inequality and bad outcomes for individuals and for society as a whole. I thought about this when I returned to a sentence I highlighted in Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow. Alexander writes, “The unfortunate reality we must face is that racism manifests itself not only in individual attitudes and stereotypes, but also in the basic structure of society.” When we think about design we can begin to connect the inequalities, the disparate impacts, and the problems with society today to the attitudes and behaviors of the past. In his podcast series, Seeing White, on his show Scene on Radio, host John Biewen reflects on the structural elements of racism in our society as opposed to the individual elements. Individual racism is easy to see, easy to condemn, and easy to change, but structural and institutional racism is hard to see, hard to understand, and very difficult to change. However, just because it is hard to see and understand does not mean that structural racism is any less of a threat to society or any less real for the people impacted.

We should be honest with ourselves and accept the idea that structures and systems designed by people who were openly racist can still impact the lives of people today. System and procedures were designed with the interests of white people and white culture in mind, and part of the decisions that were made involved the oppression, the limitation, and the containment of black people. We still must deal with many of these systems, even if their design has been slightly changed, because the original design was effective in allowing some to prosper while others were limited. These designs mattered, and they still matter today. A system that deplores individual racism while supporting hidden and structural racism can influence and shape the lives of individuals and the direction of society arguably more effectively than a system that encourages individual and open racism. To move forward, our nation needs leaders who can be honest about systems and structures and understand that design matters when thinking about government, society, services, communities, and neighborhoods. By becoming more aware, all of us can recognize the way that systems which are currently in place can shape our quality of life and the perceptions we all share, and we can push for new systems that compel us to interact more with our fellow citizens, and encourage us to see each other as people as opposed to enemies.

The Extent of Mass Incarceration

“More African American Adults are under correctional control today—in prison or jail, on probation or parol—than were enslaved in 1850, a decade before the Civil War began.” Michelle Alexander writes this in her book, The New Jim Crow, to demonstrate the extent of mass incarceration in the United States. Mass incarceration is simply the term we use to describe our extensive and high number of arrests and level of imprisionment, and it is a problem because the justice system in many ways does not operate like the blind and fair system we imagine or would like. Criminal justice in the United States, and truly everywhere, depends on humans. We have to have humans to set the laws, arrest the rule-breakers, determine the appropriate punishment, and then deliver a sentence. Throughout The New Jim Crow, Alexander demonstrates how this system has broken down in our country because of the humans, because of our inability to see people without prejudice, and because of a history of race that we cannot simply forget with colorblind glasses.

“The mass incarceration of people with color is a big part of the reason that a black child born today is less likely to be raised by both parents than a black child born during slavery.” When we do not think about criminal justice, and when we do not think about people as people, we allow systems to grow that operate with the worst parts of our nature. Our tribalism takes over and we begin seeing other people and other groups as somehow less than ourselves and the groups to which we belong. We start to look at cultures that are not our own and find ways in which those cultures seem to be inferior to our culture, and then we justify the inequality which benefits us while disadvantaging those from the other tribe.

“The absence of black fathers from families across America is not simply a function of laziness, immaturity, or too much time watching Sports Center. Thousands of black men have disappeared into prisons and jails, locked away for drug crimes that are largely ignored when committed by whites.” What Alexander is explaining is that we are (as a society and as a whole) responsible for the actions, behaviors, and cultures that we see around us and describe as inferior. Concentrated poverty has a disastrous impact on the future of young children, and it was our society and our housing and zoning policies that lead to the segregated ghettos that produced those cultures that we so heavily criticize today. Our decisions, our tribal brains, our self-interest, our ability to exploit others for our own gain, our ability to rationalize our success, our ability to blame the individual for their failure, and our ability to de-humanize those who we see as less than ourselves lead to a nation where we have restricted certain groups of individuals, denied them economic and social mobility, and arrested them for their inevitable humanity. Mass incarceration is not an honest reaction to crime, violence, danger, and a need for punishment. It is a cancerous outgrowth of policy and decisions made in bad faith to protect those who have been favored at the expense of those who have been exploited.

Societal Expectations and Outcomes

It seems to me that a great deal of human outcomes are shaped by society in ways that are not always clear or obvious. Beyond arguments of nature versus nurture, our daily actions seem to be limited, encouraged, prevented, or otherwise influenced by our society and culture. What society tells us is desirable and acceptable makes a diffence in what we want and what we can do, and at the same time social stigmas and taboos keep us from behaving in certain ways. This is important to think about when we look at racial minorities in this country, the way that our society treats those groups, and the outcomes those groups experience. In her book, The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander addresses this idea and looks at how society has, over time, reinforced the idea that black men and women are dangerous, less worthy of social assistance, and culturally flawed in ways that prevent them from achieving success.

In the United States, our society is comfortable talking about how bad criminals are, and about how sever punishment for criminals should be. What gets mixed up in this discussion however, are ideas of race. We police and arrest black communities and individuals at much higher rates than white communities and individuals, and then we place severe social stigmas against people who have been incarcerated. Once an individual has been let out of prison, they return to a society that is unwelcoming, will not employ them, does not offer them housing assistance, and rewards those who denigrate the formerly incarcerated. In her book, Alexander shares a quote from Frederick Douglas that demonstrates how this approach is counter productive for reducing crime and changing behavior, which is often described as the main goal of the criminal justice system.

“In Frederick Douglass’s words, “Men are so constituted that they derive their conviction of their own possibilities largely from the estimate formed of them by others. If nothing is expected of a people, that people will find it difficult to contradict that expectation.” A society that sets low expectations for black people, arrests them at unreasonably high levels, calls them criminals, and reduces black culture will produce more black people who fit the description and expectations that society has created. When we do not create environments that encourage everyone to succeed and demonstrate to everyone that they can participate and be welcomed to engage and grow, then many people are left behind and not helped forward.

We see this happening today. A recent paper from Raj Chetty demonstrated that black youth at the top of their class in math and science are less likely to go on to become inventors and file patents relative to white youth with average to below average performance in math and science. What is limiting our children is a lack of support and the lack of a vision of entrepreneurship. A classmate of mine, Chris Dickens, is a youth parol officer, and he explained that children who receive fee for service Medicaid during their time as a ward of the state see a reduced recidivism rate of about 50%. These two examples indicate that crime, success, and opportunity are not simply matters within our own power, but are shaped by the society and environment around us. If we celebrate a culture that criticizes and demeans those who have been marginalized, then we will constantly isolate those who need the most support, and our actions will create the very evils and social outcomes that we claim to dislike.

Do Racial Minorities Commit More Crime?

An argument you may hear about why arrest rates are so high for black and latino people in the United States is that those two groups commit crimes (particularly drug crimes) at higher levels than white people. The evidence for this is the number of black and latino people incarcerated relative to white people. If white people committed more crimes relative to black and latino people, we would have a prison population that was more representative of the non-prison population. This logic however, is incorrect.

Michelle Alexander in The New Jim Crow looks at this argument directly as she examines our criminal justice system and evaluates whether we police and arrest fairly or in a way that disproportionately affects black people and other minority groups. Alexander cites evidence throughout her book to suggest that our policing habits and incarceration practices are influenced by racial attitudes and implicit bias. When you view the system through this lens, you see that the argument above becomes an excuse for racial disparities in policing and an excuse for the poor economic and social outcomes for our minority populations.  In response to such faulty thinking, Alexander writes, “The former New Jersey attorney general dubbed this phenomenon the ‘circular illogic of racial profiling.’ Law enforcement officials, he explained, often point to the racial composition of our prisons and jails as justification for targeting racial minorities, but the empirical evidence actually suggested the opposite conclusion was warranted.”

Further, citing research in racial profiling, Alexander writes, “Whites were actually more likely than people of color to be carrying illegal drugs or contraband in their vehicles. In fact, in New Jersey, whites were almost twice as likely to be found with illegal drugs or contraband as African Americans, and five times as likely to be found with contraband as latinos.”

The New Jim Crow makes it clear that our prisons are over populated with black and latino individuals relative to the crime they commit (particularly drug crimes) and that this over representation is the result of years of racial bias in our country. The way we think about crime in low income neighborhoods, the way we think about drug offenses, and the way we review and evaluate criminal activity puts racial minorities at a disadvantage, and the arrest rates for black and brown people are evidence of our racial biases in policing rather than a justification for our policing and incarceration patterns.